The $65 billion that will be invested in Southwest Louisiana over the next five years is reminiscent of similar events that occurred 75 years ago. Unprecedented industrial growth at that time made this area one of the country’s major petrochemical centers.
Will we be ready this time? The challenges are mind-boggling.
Southwest Louisiana came through 75 years ago, and the organizations preparing for the new wave of growth were also at work in 1939-41.
Three of the key players then — and again today — were McNeese State University, Sowela Technical Community College and the Port of Lake Charles.
McNeese opened as Lake Charles Junior College on Sept. 11, 1939, as part of the LSU System. The American Press said it was convinced that someday it would be a four-year college, and it happened.
Dr. Joe Farrar, the first dean, gave major credit for the founding of McNeese to the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and the Lake Charles Association of Commerce. The land on which the university is located had been the parish’s former poor farm where the needy had grown crops and were provided social services.
“But for the fine cooperation of these two organizations, we would not be here this morning,” Farrar said when all of those involved were recognized.
W.E. Holbrook of DeQuincy, president of the Police Jury, said, “In time, the whole 86 acres will be dotted with the finest buildings in the state, for this college is bound to grow.”
Adolph S. Marx, president of the Association of Commerce, said Arthur L. Gayle, the A of C past president, “has done more for the achievement of this college, perhaps, than any other one man.”
Both of those organizations are heavily involved in current preparations for the industrial growth still to come.
Gov.-elect Sam H. Jones of Lake Charles in 1940 suggested the college be renamed the John McNeese Junior College. McNeese was recognized as the founder of public education in Southwest Louisiana and was the first superintendent of education in old Imperial Calcasieu Parish.
LSU’s enrollment at all of its institutions in September of 1940 was 7,431, and 250 of those were students attending McNeese.
The American Press, on behalf of the community, extended a warm welcome to McNeese’s faculty and students.
“… We want them to become one of us,” the newspaper said. “And we feel sure they will soon find out that when the college wants anything that it is in the power of the city to give them they will have the full cooperation of all the citizens.”
Developments for what was to become Sowela Technical Community College were taking place at about the same time. The state Board of Education was opening bids in September of 1939 for construction of the Southwest Louisiana Trades School.
Construction was under way in January of 1940. The cost of the building was $125,000 and it was going to take $25,000 annually to operate the school.
J.E. Lindsey, the first director, traced development of the trade school movement in Louisiana. He said the first trade school opened in Bogalusa a few years earlier and was so successful a second one was built in Shreveport. The school here was No. 3.
The Southwest Louisiana Trades School opened Sept. 28, 1940, and students didn’t have to pay tuition or fees to attend. By December, they were working to bolster the country’s defense efforts.
“Working to end one of the most binding of all the ‘bottlenecks’ in preparations for American defense is the Southwest Louisiana Trade School here which is teaching various courses essential to national defense…, the American Press said.
Life in Southwest Louisiana had changed dramatically by January of 1941. The newspaper said then that 1,000 new residents “now call Lake Charles ‘home’.” It was a moving account of how life here was changing.
“Since January 1940, a steady stream of new residents has been moving into Lake Charles, taking their places beside older residents, bringing new blood, new ideas and new enthusiasm into the city’s activities,” the Press said.
“As the scene of their lives shifts to Lake Charles, the record of their entrance is made by the Association of Commerce and behind each number — be it five or 50 — is a face — a new face — eager, curious, examining our city with friendly eyes, searching for his or her part in the new and exciting play of life….
“With the expansion of industry and business, the deepening of the channel, the addition of the United States Weather Bureau, John McNeese Junior College, Southwest Louisiana Trade School and other new institutions has come an opportunity on a new stage, for people representing 27 states in the Union, Canada and the District of Columbia.”
Most of the new residents came from Houston. Other cities providing a large number, in order, were New Orleans, Beaumont and Baton Rouge.
It’s safe to say that most of the development that occurred 75 years ago and the economic growth that is coming soon wouldn’t have happened without the Calcasieu Ship Channel and the active involvement of the Port of Lake Charles.
Will we be ready? The history of Southwest Louisiana indicates its people are up to the challenge, but no one involved can afford to let his or her guard down.